Thursday, August 28, 2008

Free Wheelin' Aint Free

It doesn't take much awareness to realize that bicycle commuting, and bike use in general, is on the rise. There are articles in local papers, growing numbers of blogs, and increasing accomodation for bikes in street layout. Heck, just go outside and look around. The three main reasons seem to be, in no particular order, 1) the high price of gas, 2) health concerns, and 3) environmental concerns.

Now I know most people think "technology" means the ability to communicate wirelessly while watching high-definition video of the latest world event and listening to downloaded music. But believe it or not, there's still technology that's purely mechanical, and there's a lot of interesting innovation going on there.

Bicycles are among the notable beneficiaries of this mechanical innovation. There are two technologies in particular that are very promising for commuters and heavy-duty bicyclists: internal gear hubs and shaft drives.

The shaft-drive replaces the greasy bicycle chain, with it's cogs, cassettes and derailleurs, with a neat little tube housing that extends from the pedal crank to the rear hub. Inside, protected from the elements and road conditions, are the drive shaft and bevel gears. The principle is simple: you work the pedals, which turns the shaft, which turns a gear at the rear hub. That would be enough to make a very robust single speed bike.

For multiple speeds, though, you can't use a derailleur that pushes the chain back and forth among smaller and larger gears. Instead, you can use one of the internal gear hubs like those from Shimano, SRAM and Rohloff. Again, all the mechanisms are fully enclosed in housings that retain the grease, and keep out road dirt and other crud.

Dedicated recreational bicyclists are used to doing a certain amount of maintenance to keep their bikes in prime performing condition, and fortunately, bikes are pretty simple, easy-to-understand machines. But for commuters, who just want to hop on and pedal to where they're going, the low-maintenance aspects of these enclosed mechanism, the shaft drive and the gear hub, are a huge boon.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Beer Here

At a recent family get-together, my cousin showed off his latest iPhone applications. One of the more amusing was iBeer, an application that creates the appearance of filling your iPhone (or iPod Touch) with foaming beer, and then drinking or pouring it by tipping the phone. One look, and I was sold.

iBeer is classified as "entertainment" software, but as it turns out, it's only entertaining for the people you show it to. Seeing someone else demonstrate it may make you want to get it, but once you do, it's only use is to demonstrate it to others. After all, it's not very satisfying to drink by yourself, and especially when it's only pretend beer. And when you're "drinking" it, you can't even see the screen to watch it drain.

This is the ultimate product! It's only purpose is to sell itself. In effect, this is the essence of viral marketing. Anyone who buys it instantly becomes a sales person by showing it to others.

And yet, this seems much more innocent than the I Am Rich iPhone application that caused such a buzz. I guess the fun of showing it to others, and watching their amusement, is the return on investment.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Future In Your Pocket

Ok, let me try a different take on the future.

In the future, no one will buy a computer. The computer, per se, will be a relic. Instead, almost everything you buy, with the possible exception of food and toilet paper, will contain a computer. Every durable good will contain some amount of intelligence. Pens will remember what they've written, and maybe improve your handwriting. Shoes will keep track of mileage and wear, and self-adjust to terrain. Coffee cups will know if your beverage is mixed correctly, too sweet or too creamy, or about to run out. Oh, and they'll maintain whatever temperature you prefer. GPS-guided cars will take you wherever you want to go automatically, avoiding collisions and maintaining optimal traffic flow, and will respond to voice commands when you need a rest stop. Your refrigerator will thaw the roast just in time to hand it off to the waiting microwave/convection oven, which has timed your whole meal to the second. Even your clothes will know when they've got ring around the collar.

One of the reasons general-purpose computers will go away, of course, is that using a keyboard, mouse and screen is a really stupid way to do most things. Sure, they have their uses, and some appliances (e.g., TV entertainment systems) will still resemble the computer, but for most activities, voice and/or gesture are much more expressive and flexible. These are the ways we've communicated with each other for thousands of years. As the computer evolves into a set of intelligent tools and companions, we would want them to be just as receptive and intuitive as another human being.

There are two products on the market today which are bold steps in this direction, and both have been resounding successes. Both have had long lines of anxious would-be purchasers, and both have spurred great volumes of discussion, demonstration and debate.

I'm referring, of course, to the Apple iPhone and the Nintendo Wii.

Welcome to the future.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Future ... Out of Order

I was in Montreal this past week, and noticed an exciting store display. The full street level window of this business was taken up by a flat panel display. The video featured a pouting model strolling the runway and giving the camera a look that was both enticing and distancing.

As the bus I was on rounded the corner, we saw another window-sized display on that side. This one, however, just showed a perfect green field of gently rolling hills. Above it, a perfect blue sky with just the right number of fluffy white clouds looked on. It was, in short, the Windows Vista desktop background. Hovering in front of all this pastoral beauty was a rectangular box displaying a program failure message, complete with "Ok" button.

This reminded me of when I visited the Washington, D.C. area shortly after the opening of the Silver Spring, Md. Metro station. There were nine of the gleaming new fare card machines at the entrance. Of these, seven were out of order, and another failed while I stood on line. Eventually, the operators let everyone onto the Metro for free.

This is what the future holds. There will be technology to address every human need and desire, in the most sophisticated manner imaginable. But it will all be out of order.

Friday, August 15, 2008

In the Land of the Blind ...

Everyone seems to be talking about Nicholas Carr's article in The Atlantic, Is Google Making Us Stoopid? The gist is that Google is really the scapegoat or synecdoche for the Internet as a whole, and that the style of reading it encourages, one of short blurbs and rapid context changes, is robbing us of our ability to read deeply on any subject. Carr cites some anecdotal evidence from his own and others' experience, and waltzes around his many caveats about the benefits of information appliances, but on the whole, bemoans his own loss of ability to concentrate on longer writing. (He neglects to consider the possible effects of aging.)

Many other bloggers have taken up the challenge either to defend or to attack Carr's position. There's been plenty of lively discussion around this, and many interesting points made on both sides.

But I take a totally different tack. I say "Hooray!" I'm finally in vogue. I've always had trouble reading long articles and books. My attention has always been a fleeting thing at best. Most non-fiction books seem to me to be attempts to commercialize on a single idea or, at best, a very few ideas. Once you grasp the idea, the rest of the book is just filler to make it appear to be worth $16.95.

Moreover, I find reading someone else's writing is like having to step in their footprints in the snow. Language is a vehicle for thought, so following someone else's writing means riding in the back seat while the writer drives. If I want to try going off on a side road, I don't have that option. I can only experience the trip exactly as the tour guide wants it. That's ok for a short trip, but for a really lengthy exploration, I want to have some freedom to linger here and there, or take side trips on my own.

Now, of course, reading can spur the imagination, and inspire new and creative thinking. But for me at least, that's always a digression. I have to catch myself and forcibly return to the text once in a while, or I'll never get through it. The best books take me the longest to read, because they trigger so many interesting diversions.

Well, that's about all I can bother to write on this, so I'll just say "Vive l'Internet!"

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Personal Technology

I want to talk about how the technology for experiencing media is becoming more personal, and less communal, but I'm not sure where to put this. I have another blog, Art/Tech Fusion, that's focused on the intersection of art and technology, and how they affect each other. That seems like a good place to talk about the impact of personal technology on the experience of various art forms (music, movies, etc.)

However, this blog is a great place to just gripe about stuff, so this is a good place to complain about drivers too busy talking on their cell phones to look where they're going, and pedestrians reading email while walking clumsily down the sidewalk.

So I guess I'll talk about it in both places.

So at the risk of looking like a total fan, I'll mention another David Brooks column from yesterday's New York Times. Brooks contrasts individualist cultures, such as our European heritage, with collectivist ones, such as China, Japan and other Asian cultures. Our technology seems to be furthering individualism by making everything personal. We watch TV, listen to iPods, and work on personal computers and laptops. Everything's so intimate.

The collectivist cultures, on the other hand, put more emphasis on obligation and cooperation. One would expect technology in these cultures to promote public experiences like movies, concerts and other performances with large audiences.

And yet, where does all this personal technology come from? Remember the Sony Walkman?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Brooks No Interference

Last Thursday, David Brooks' op-ed piece, Lord of the Memes, in The New York Times echoed some views I've expressed here before. Specifically, Brooks says:

Now the global thought-leader is defined less by what culture he enjoys than by the smartphone, social bookmarking site, social network and e-mail provider he uses to store and transmit it.


Today, Kindle can change the world, but nobody expects much from a mere novel. The brain overshadows the mind. Design overshadows art.

In my post from Feb. 5, 2007, The Geeks vs the Heads, I lamented the triumph of Apple, the computer company, over Apple, the Beatles' music company, in their long-standing trademark litigation. I said:
This is the triumph of medium over message. The company that controls the technology dominates over the company that creates the actual content.
I don't always agree with Brooks, but I almost always find his columns interesting and thought-provoking.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Media Critical Judgement -- YAFS

As I've railed previously on this blog, most recently here, advertising is the commodity on the Web. Or, more precisely, attention is the commodity. That's what all content providers and advertisers are after ... a bit of your attention.

That's fine. If that's what supports the creation of excellent content like this blog (I wish!), so be it. But as readers and viewers, we have a certain obligation to develop critical faculties and judgment. We need to acquire the ability to discriminate between the well argued and documented, and the merely loud.

This is no different from TV commercials. They're all louder than the programs they infest, so you can hear them even when you go to the fridge for a snack. And they all try to be cute and memorable, as opposed to persuasive. Think about the commercials that stick in your mind. Do you think Geico Insurance is better than any other because they have cavemen or a cute animated gecko? Does that horde of extras stalking the Verizon customer really prove their service is better?

Given that more research is done on the effectiveness of ads than probably any other aspect of human behavior, these techniques must work, despite their irrationality. That's why we all need to learn to evaluate advertising claims critically. And because of product placements, viral marketing, and other means of infiltrating seemingly innocuous content, we need to apply this critical thinking to all content. Otherwise, we're just supporting and encouraging more intrusive and misleading promotion, as Seth Godin describes on his blog.

My father used to sit in front of the TV and say "YAFS!" to the commercials. (This was in the days before mute buttons.) YAFS is an acronym for "You Are Full of ... well, something." No exaggeration. I grew up watching TV with this constant reminder to be skeptical of commercials. You can imagine the cynicism this engendered.

Now you know why I'm such a curmudgeon.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Perfect Servant

In my ranting about blogs last week, I realized that one of the reasons they overwhelm you is that we're just not there yet with filtering. The ideal syndication tool would be one that automatically harvests everything you're interested in, and nothing you're not, and shows you only the interesting stuff. You don't have to worry about which posts or blogs to read, or which Web sites to check out. You just get what you want to see automatically.

Of course, this means that a complete, and ever changing profile of you has to exist somewhere. I'm sure Google would be only too happy to collect that information.

In a sense, this is the idea behind groups such as those run by Yahoo! and Google. You subscribe to join the groups you're interested in, and get to see all the content, without having to scan through a lot of other stuff. Of course, the problem with that is that the only real filter is what people posting to the group think is appropriate. We all know where that gets us.

Think about the movies in which some fantastically rich person has servants who supply only the relevant mail, or only the interesting parts of the newspaper. That's what computers should be ... perfect servants. They should know exactly what we do and don't need or want to see, and present all of that, and nothing else. They should be omnipresent, and available all the time.

Wake me when we get there.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Look With Your Hands

When I was a kid shopping with my parents, they always said "Look with your eyes, not your hands."

Part of the beauty of the iPhone and iPod Touch interface is that you can look with your hands. Seriously, the appeal of this interface lies not in either the 3.5" screen or the Multi-Touch interface. It's both!

The screen is larger than most PDA and cell phone screens, but it's still small compared with how most of us are used to browsing the Web and reading email. But the fact that it's so easy to scroll around with the flick of a finger means that your data can be displayed in big, clear graphics, even if it doesn't all fit on the screen.

Maybe I'm slow, but it just dawned on me today that the "Day" view in the calendar only shows a small portion of the day, but it's very readable. Because I can scroll up and down so easily, it doesn't bother me that the view is limited. It's even easier then scrolling on a desktop machine.

So the direct manipulation via Multi-Touch is an attractive feature itself, but it also enables greater magnification of displayed information. That combination is especially appealing.